Finding Help for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Images and text by Gerrit Vyn, Cornell Lab producer
June 17, 2011

In the arctic tundra of eastern Russia, a sparrow-sized shorebird with a one-of-a-kind beak is facing extinction—and a few scientists are doing all they can to save it. In recent years the Spoon-billed Sandpiper‘s population has dropped by a staggering 25 percent per year. Fewer than 200 pairs now remain. So this year, shorebird experts from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and Birds Russia are enacting an emergency plan to begin a captive breeding program (read their expedition blog here). Their hope is to stall the species’ decline and give scientists time to learn why it’s happening. 

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The Cornell Lab’s Gerrit Vyn, a photographer and video producer in our Multimedia Program, is in the field along with the scientists. He’s there to record, for the first time, the natural history of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper on its breeding grounds in high-definition video and sound. He’ll be there throughout the brief arctic summer, and we’ll feature a few posts from him during his stay in Meynypil’gyno, Russia (see a map). In this first installment, he describes what’s known about the threats facing the bird, as well as his first encounter with Spoon-billed Sandpipers in the wild. –Hugh Powell

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is likely the most critically endangered bird species in the world. It breeds on remote coastal tundra and migrates to the south through key staging sites in Kamchatka, Korea, and Japan. It winters across South China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. But with fewer than 200 breeding pairs remaining, unless the rate of decline is stemmed the Spoon-billed Sandpiper will become extinct in a decade.

Thus far, determining the most important factors behind its population decline has been difficult—a common problem for migratory species that travel large distances and live in multiple locations throughout the year.  The two main factors currently thought to be at the root of the decline are habitat loss around key migration sites in the Yellow Sea, where tidal estuaries are being walled off and turned into land; and subsistence hunting pressure at wintering sites. (Some local people use nets to trap larger shorebirds for food; Spoon-billed Sandpipers, though too small to eat, sometimes end up as casualties.) The loss of habitat to land reclamation is also causing continuing declines in several other shorebird species of the East Asian–Australasian Flyway.

Our destination for this project is the village of Meynypil’gyno—about 500 people living on a long gravel spit at the edge of the Bering Sea. Nearby is the largest known core breeding area of Spoon-billed Sandpipers, where at least 12 pairs bred last year. We arrived in early June, just before the males arrived to begin their courtship flights and nesting.

Just inland from Meynypil’gyno is an area of rolling moraine hills interspersed with small tundra ponds. Beyond that is a range of frigid, unexplored mountains. When we arrived, snow was still deep in many areas and the main water bodies were still frozen, but things were thawing quickly. The weather is cold and windy as is to be expected for most of our stay.

Lately, the snowdrifts have shrunk enough for us to venture farther afield, on foot or by ATV. In the two weeks we’ve been here, the Spoon-billed Sandpipers have returned and many are now incubating eggs. I’ve just come back to town after three days camping out, watching and recording these marvelous birds. (Read more about what the scientists have been doing at the Wildfowl Wetlands Trust expedition blog.)

Elsewhere, bird migration has been in full swing. When the winds are right there is constant passage of Common and Steller’s Eiders, Harlequin Ducks, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Brant, four species of loons, assorted auks, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and regular flocks of 50 or more Pomarine Jaegers. Shorebirds are moving too, including Ringed Plover, Lesser Sand-Plover, Red Knot, Ruff, Wood Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red-necked Stint, and others.

There’s been mammal migration too: Gray Whales swimming within 20 feet of the gravel shore. Many are feeding and just passing by but others are using the coarse gravel to rub their bodies free of barnacles and other skin irritants. I stood knee deep in the surf and watched a group of three whales, within 15 feet at times, rolling, splashing and spyhopping (bobbing vertically in the water to look around). It is tempting to dive into the frigid waters with them if only for a moment.


  • Food…Predation pressure goes away when food is abundant…If the big birds & other predators are getting fed, the little ones do better…Of course, if the little ones get fed specifically, they are able to defend themselves better…But trying to save a rare breed while ignoring the more common ones in the area may be shortsighted…The crisis in that particular location is probably across the board, including the whales & the bears…A psychological shift in the community of humans who live close by can manifest big change…Food is one of the easiest things that nearby humans can help with…If there is some sort of supply mechanism bringing wild bird seed into the area, then most people would love to be part of a group that comes around to distribute that seed…People love to feed birds…We are at the point in history where we can no longer say that it is better to leave Nature alone in regards to feeding birds & other so-called “wild”life…The whole dependence issue is moot…Our planet’s animals

    are now as dependent on us as our own children…”nature” is now just private property, real estate, that apparently can be bought & sold on a whim…I have found that merely giving people “permission” to feed wildlife gets them going…So many have been programmed to think that it is wrong to feed wildlife, that it doesn’t get done…If “permission” to feed the birds at that location is given to the local community there, wonders could occur…(But broad permission, not just the one species…Let them care for, ‘adopt’ who they feel…)Feedings take the pressure off of everybody…Next we will teach a nice design for artificial nests that can be put there & locals will be instructed on how to place the nests for later…

  • James

    I hope that we can buy the estuaries being walled of and pay the substance hunters to guard the birds.

  • Jay Sheppard

    I worked for USFWS end. sp. program for >20 years. Captive breeding of shorebirds like the Spoonbill would seem incredibly risky!!! I am not aware of any captive breeding for any small shorebirds anywhere, so how would anyone think this will succeed–that is, produce any sandpipers that will return and nest on their own without further help???? Do any of the researchers attempting this have any prior experience in such work?

    Protection of nests & young, migratory habitat and wintering take by hunters would seem less risky and more likely to yield increased numbers of birds. When I say ‘risky’ I mean the capture of adults and/or young without any successful breeding by them….a lost summer.

    Further–is everyone convinced that all the breeding by this species takes place in this one tiny area of Siberia? There have to be a few milllion sq km of Arctic tundra in Siberia that few, if any, ornitholgists have visited in the breeding season looking for such small shorebirds….??

    Jay S.

  • Adrian Digby

    Waders with extreme adapotaion of their beaks appear to be particularly threatened. Food and the habitat that the food is available, always seems to be the major factor in a population reductions but if this stress already occurs then additional stresses of hunting or that slightly longer migration flight with nowhere to feed in Korea may be the last straw. And population decline commences and appear v hard to stop.

    Slender billed Curlew, Eskimo Curlew – gone

    Spoon Billed Sandpiper going

    Asian Dowitcher, Bristle Thighed Curlew, also food specialists are threatened – not sure about spotted Greenshank and Great Knot but if they have specialist food/feeding techniques maybe that explains their rarity.

    Good luck to all concerned with the Spoon Billed Sandpier research. Fingers crossed we can find out a way to halt the decline.

  • Hugh

    Jay- thanks for raising this in the context of your career experience. The work is being done by scientists from the Wildfowl Wetlands Trust, which has been conserving wetlands and birds since 1946. You can read about some past endangered species projects on their website: The other major partner is Birds Russia, and special attention has been paid to planning and permitting this expedition. To find out more about the population estimates, click on the Spoon-billed Sandpiper link in the blog post. I’d also encourage you to read the expedition blog (also linked in this post) to hear from the scientists themselves. I’m sure they’d welcome your questions and provide you with more detail. Thanks for writing.

  • sir,

    The spoon billed sand piper is also sighted in South India in October november in a fresh water lake ecosystem konown as Kolleru of Andhra Pradesh.

    this migratory studies can be strenghened by these observations enemating from A.P.Forest department and Indian Network for Cultural and Biological Diversity(INCBD)

  • In further reply to Jay – there is very well-established captive breeding of a wide range of shorebirds, and WWT specifically has worked with breeding commoner species in preparation for this project. I will be running the London Marathon in April 2012 to raise funds for WWT’s work with the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. Please visit to support the project.

  • Anne Spackman

    Well, let’s hope to see the spoon-billed sandpiper populations rise with the captive breeding program. I just hope that this rare bird can be saved. You all are really doing a worthy thing in trying to save this endangered little bird. Keep up the good work!

Finding Help for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper